Thursday, December 11, 2008

A tempest arrives for City Council

The new era of civic governance is off to a rocky start, with a controversial city council decision not to allow School District 52 to operate the Pacific Coast School in the Cow Bay district.

The subject of frequent media updates and open School District 52 sessions in the last number of months, it somehow took until the almost the last moment before anyone found time to offer up a dissenting opinion, creating a zoning debate and controversy that has ensnared City Council in a hornets nest of public opinion.
With Councillor Kathy Bedard not in attendance and another, Anna Ashley stepping aside on conflict of interest concerns, it was left to Councillors Gordon-Payne, Kinney, Thorkelson and Garon as well as Mayor Jack Mussallem to decide on the fate of a rezoning bid for property on 1st Avenue East at 3rd Avenue East.

The location, beside Seasport Marine has been mentioned for a number of months now as the new location for the school, a new module of learning that is designed to re-engage students in the learning process.
However, the neighbours in Cow Bay apparently for the most part, weren’t particularly overjoyed at neither the new land use designation, nor the proposed influx of students and made their views known by petition and by their attendance at the council meeting.

Their opposition to the project swayed Councillors Gordon-Payne and Garon, as well as Mayor Mussallem, while the remaining councilors Kinney and Thorkelson remained in favour of the school locating in Cow Bay, a stand that came up one vote short.

What is left now around town, are some hard feelings in the community, with the School District rather surprised at the fallout from their plans along with some serious confusion from the public on how things got so off the rails.

How the debate got to this point is a puzzling thing and the end result is one that hasn’t served anyone particularly well in this case.

The School has been an ongoing proposal for a number of months now, hardly a secret and one wonders why the concerns were not voiced early on in the process.

Whether that was a failing of city staff, the School District or the Cow Bay Merchants is open to debate, but with little to no feedback from the city, the School District continued on with their plans, only to find themselves unwanted very late in the development phase.

Likewise many observers of the debate wonder why another school of sorts, the Hecate Strait Business Development Society offices in the old forestry building managed to breeze through any scrutiny from the Cow Bay Merchants and with few of the concerns it seems that suddenly have become hot issues with the Pacific Coast school, located but a two minute walk from Hecate Strait.

It’s that perceived double standard, along with the tone and perceived credibility of some of the Cow Bay merchant concerns that has more than a few engaged in debate in a rather fiery way, with the local bulletin board htmf, providing the forum for discussion and a fair amount of venting over the controversial council decision.

The council decision has created a nasty tempest to be dealt with; one where nobody wins and much bridge building will be required later on.

It’s something that didn’t need to happen and something that could have been dealt with much earlier in the development. The school may or may not have ended up in the storefront location on First Avenue East, but at least the tone of the process would have been proper and the heat of the debate avoided.

As it is, the always community splitting prospect of NIMBYism has arisen, Council’s less than sure handling of their first controversial ruling will probably resonate in the community for a fair amount of time, framing the debate for many more of their decisions in the future.
How what appears to have been a mishandled zoning issue has mushroomed into much more , can be found in the conversations of the coffee shops, shopping centres and on line forums. Where it proceeds from this point will tell us a lot about how the new Mayor and council face up to the job at hand and remain accountable to those that gave them their confidence but one month ago.

In the meantime, the School District must now scramble to find an alternate location, so they can get back to their main mission in the community.

That of trying to provide an engaging and inclusive learning experience for their students, remaining a vital part of the community, or at least those parts of the community that don't mind having them as neighbours.

The hackingthemainframe debates can be reviewed from the links below.

Conflict of Interest
While Wednesday’s Daily News provided the background of the Cow Bay merchant’s intervention and council’s subsequent split.
On the editorial page, Monica Lamb Yorski of the Daily News weighed in on the debate with her interpretations of the events of Monday night.

Councillors agree that Cow Bay isn't the right place for the proposed new alternate school
By George T. Baker
The Daily News
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Pages one and three
Succumbing to fierce opposition from Cow Bay merchants, city council decided last night to vote against the approval of a proposed innovative alternative school on First Avenue East.
City council called it a lesson learned about cooperation and consultation.

The school board said the lesson should have been taught first before the issue was tested in the public.

Council voted three-to-two against zoning bylaw No. 3272, meaning the school district will have to find another location for the school.

The decision did not sit well with school district superintendent Eric Mercer, who felt the city was appraised of the plans from the beginning and knew exactly what the school district was looking for.

"When we began our process, we had no idea about we would end up having to talk first to Cow Bay (merchants)," said Mercer.

The controversial plan to place a school near the Cow Bay business area had Cow Bay merchants and light industrial shop owners up in arms, fearing a degradation of their existing business area.
The proposed site had sat vacant for two years and was available for a commercial business to fill it, according to building owner Robert Stromdahl.

"There is no one coming to rent it out," he warned.

Stromdahl attempted to allay fears that a stampede of children would ruin a tourist's walk along First Avenue, stating that it shouldn't be a problem. But he did not convince the Cow Bay merchants who opposed the project,

"This is a retail store front and a prime location for business. A school has no place there," said Cow Bay Merchants Association president Glen Saunders.

The district's case stated the school would benefit from being surrounded by light industrial companies, citing a need to get students who would attend the proposed school closer to trade vocations. But light industrial shop owners opposed the plan, claiming they have not seen interest in their work from teenagers before.

"If the kids got on to my land, who would be liable for this? If there are 40 kids with no playground where will they go?" asked Broadwater Industries owner Doug Mackereth.
Another shop owner was more blunt in his assessment of the rationale for the school.

"I have accommodated five kids over the 43 years I have been in welding (business). I don't think that these (participating) kids learned anything," said welding shop owner Neil Foreman, who reasoned that the students who bothered to apprentice for a week would either not show up every day or would not behave productively when there.

After all the arguments for and against the re-zoning were heard, city council put the motion to a vote.

Councillors Joy Thorkelson and Nelson Kinney voted in favour of the school, while councillors Sheila Gordon-Payne and Gina Garon voted against, leaving Mayor Jack Mussallem to cast the deciding vote.

Mussallem voted 'no'.

"I don't think anyone questions the validity of the facility," said Mussallem.

"The school board was very thorough in their analysis and how they wished to proceed. Had they had an opportunity to talk with the neighbours (before) there may have been more support and there may not have been as much opposition as there was tonight."
Rejection of school leaves me stunned
Between the lines
Monica LambYorski
The Daily News
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Page 4

A line was drawn in the sand the other night that's polarizing the community.

It wasn't drawn in a school yard, like the days when we were kids and played I Declare War at recess to widen the borders of our European countries, but it was about a school.

Pacific Coast School that was intended for a location in Cow Bay in the building that houses Seasport on First Avenue East, slated to open February 2009.

City council voted against the proposed location three-to-two after hearing from a delegation of Cow Bay merchants opposed to having a school in the Cow Bay area.

Opposition from the merchants cited tourist traffic, safety concerns around light industrial businesses, an increase of cigarette butts and lack of parking, as some of the reasons for not wanting the school in Cow Bay.

There's been talk about this new school for months. It has a website that's been slowly developing with more information added each month.

Even my own high school aged children have been talking about it.

Unless I’ve been keeping my head in the sand, it seems like the opposition has arisen at the final hour and it’s got people talking.

I was in charge of security for the Grad Hockey Game last night which meant I had the luxury of milling around the arena all evening, rather than having to stand in one plae like the rest of my crew.

When I reached the top of the bleachers to see how things were going I anticipated overhearing conversations about the game, but instead, heard concern about city council’s decision on Monday night

Some people are upset and disheartened by the decision. The rhetoric is flying and some of the comments I heard were;

"City council has set a precedent of not in my back yard."

"I heard one person say they should put the school 10 miles out of town."

"You don't think a young kid couldn't get inspired looking out the windows of that location and get excited about the future?"

“This new school was talking about trades and we keep hearing how we need more trades, and trades people are opposing this?”

The Cow Bay Merchants also said Cow Bay was no place for a school.

Steve Riley one of the masterminds behind Pacific Coast School, has said all along the location would be perfect for the school.

He said that again on Monday night.

After hearing the concerns of the parents at the arena last night,. I’ve been wondering if this innovative adventure of alternative schooling might just be one of the tourist attractions we've been looking for.

A school that's trying to meet the needs of its community by giving students a second chance. Something unique and inherent to our own community that will appear genuine to the outside world.

Cruise ship Wednesdays, being the day when tourists - some with children in tow - could see people from other places interacting with youths from our community.

Youths in our community; excited about their education, gaining another ounce of pride sharing that excitement with visitors.

Some kids in this community are succeeding but some of them aren't.

Having an alternative school in the centre of town would mean we'd all be part of the support team.

The line I'm drawing in the sand today is a reminder that a community will be judged in the end for how it cares for its most vulnerable members.

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